Writers and readers alike have long fixated on word choice. To paraphrase Mark Twain, we recognize that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. Sentences, too, often attract our attention. Gertrude Stein, grammar radical, famously waxed lyrical about the utility and joy of the sentence.
To me, though, the most powerful linguistic units are more intermediate in size—namely, the phrase and the clause.
Phrases are linguistic ideas that can be combined like beads on a string to build a sentence. Clauses are more substantive and can clarify, contrast, or concede a point. When combined well, phrases and clauses add nuance where it’s needed and can help guide your reader smoothly through your ideas. But how can you identify phrases and clauses? And how do you combine them effectively? Below, I walk through some basic parameters.
Back to basics: The difference between phrases and clauses
A phrase is a collection of words that forms a conceptual idea—think noun phrases, such as “the Chicago-style hot dog”; verb phrases, such as “cooks quite quickly,” and prepositional phrases, such as “on the grill.” A good way to identify a phrase is to pick a word in a sentence—usually a noun, verb, or preposition—and identify all the words that directly depend on that word for meaning. Thus, in “I went to my favorite sandwich shop,” the words “my,” “favorite,” and “sandwich” all depend on “shop,” a noun, to have meaning—making it a noun phrase. This noun phrase then depends on the preposition “to” to have meaning in the context of the sentence—so the noun phrase is, in turn, part of a prepositional phrase.
Clauses are more substantive and come in two forms: independent or dependent. Independent clauses contain a subject and a verb and can stand on their own as a sentence; dependent clauses are often missing one of these pieces and cannot stand alone. An example of an independent clause might be, “My friends don’t think hot dogs are sandwiches,” while a dependent clause could take the form, “but I do.” “But I do” is dependent on another clause for structure; it can’t stand alone as its own sentence (that is—officially it cannot, but we wouldn’t blame you for breaking the rules).
All this being said, even I sometimes have trouble labeling a group of words as one thing or another. Knowing what names to call these units—noun phrases, dependent clauses, and the like—is not as important as simply being able to break down the ideas in sentences into smaller pieces.
Tips for arranging phrases and clauses
When people say they can’t follow a sentence, the placement of phrases and clauses is often to blame. Thinking structurally about sentences can help; below, I outline some tips for getting started.
Size matters. The size of a given phrase or clause—the number of words it contains—can ensure that readers spend proportional time on proportionally important ideas. Additional words should (ideally) clarify or describe a given idea. Give your readers more words where you want them to stick around longer—but not too many, or else they might just get stuck. Be judicious: often, a single adjective will suffice.
Beginning and end. Things you say last are remembered most clearly by your reader, so end a given sentence with the idea you want them to take away from it or that tees off the next sentence. Conversely, the beginning of a sentence is a transition point: it is your chance to launch your reader into a new idea and clue them in on what’s about to happen in the rest of the sentence.
Objects come last. In general, for maximum clarity, English sentences should be structured so that the object of the verb comes last. If you’re going for a more sophisticated feel, you might reverse this order, putting the object before the subject and verb. Take the following sentence: “I will firmly avow that hand pies and empanadas are types of sandwiches.” If we wanted to go for a loftier tone, we might switch the order of the subject and verb with the object of the verb: “That hand pies and empanadas are types of sandwiches I will firmly avow.” While this sentence has a more whimsical feel, its abnormal structure is a bit harder to follow; again, use your discretion.
Connecting words. The importance of the little words between phrases and clauses—for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so (FANBOYS for short), as well as other conjunctions—is often overlooked. However, as a copy editor, I often see mistakes in this area, as in the following example: “I love to discuss my opinions about hot dogs, and they upset some people.” Here, we need to rethink the choice of coordinating conjunction. The second half of this sentence is meant to contrast the first: while one group (me) enjoys an activity, another group (some other people) does not. By replacing “and” with “but,” we better show the relationship between the ideas.
Proximity when clarifying. Clarity is the cornerstone of writing. Often, a clarifying phrase should be as close as possible to the thing it’s clarifying. If a phrase modifies a given noun or verb, it’s usually best to have it follow that noun or verb, as in “the sandwich that I wanted.” A phrase might also immediately precede what it modifies, as in, “Walking to the store, I saw a hamburger on the sidewalk.” (It would be even clearer to say, “As I walked to the store,” just to make it clear that the hamburger doesn’t have legs.) Generally, put the modifier and its object as close together as possible. If a phrase or clause is a caveat to the sentence’s main idea or is something you want readers to keep in mind as they read, it’s probably best to include that phrase at the sentence’s beginning, usually offset by commas. For example, you would probably say, “Despite my many haters, I hold steadfast to my sandwich-related beliefs,” or, “While there may be some exceptions to the rule, I believe that something between two of something else is a sandwich.”
The above guidance is more a set of recommendations than a rigid list of rules; what’s most important is to think structurally about how you present your ideas. At the end of the day, being able to identify and thoughtfully place phrases and clauses is a great way to improve the quality of your writing and the overall reading experience.